I spotted him as soon as I exited the back door of the school. He stood on the field, just off the paved area where students were now scattering after the final bell. He wore a bulky, beige parka, fists shoved into jean pockets, a few locks of dirty blonde hair falling over cold grey eyes; his glare confrontational. His name was Guy and while he seldom attended school, where his size was notable, whenever he did show up there was bound to be trouble.
Our eyes locked for a moment, and not wanting to show any fear, I pulled myself up taller, adjusted the jacket I’d thrown over my arm, grasped my books firmly and tried to look calm as I headed for home.
Home was an apartment building just across a steep ravine. To access it by road required a long walk equating to a mile or more, so if weather permitted, I would take the trail down the ravine and across a large sewer pipe supported on either side by mounds of earth built up around it. Since the day was unusually warm – the first signs of spring – I decided to take the short cut.
In my peripheral vision I saw that Guy had started moving in the same direction. He lived in my building, so I guessed he was just going home, but just to be sure, I decided to walk on the narrow dirt path beside the sewer pipe so he wouldn’t get any ideas, such as pushing me off.
I was looking straight ahead and walking at a confident pace when his body hit mine – a full impact blow that both winded me and caused to me lose my footing. Mind racing, I tried to surmise what was happening, as my hands grasped at rocks, twigs, anything to stop my tumbling descent. I managed to right myself for a moment before he came at me again – a tan blur of rage – felt searing pain in my shoulder as he wrestled me to the ground. I struck out with the good arm and caught the hood of his jacket, but he just squirmed out from under it, an evil grin on his face as he gripped my other arm, yanking the shoulder out of its socket. On the ground now, I kicked back, feeling my own demon rising up. I cussed and spat until finally, tossing a handful of dirt and rocks in my face, he got up and walked away, his hulking body unmarred by our melee.
“That’s for all of us!” he spat, pleased with himself for his actions.
A few timid bystanders handed me my books and jacket as I gingerly made my way up the steep slope to solid ground. Every movement made me wince with pain, and I felt my head reeling, but I wasn’t going to let them see me cry. I’d never been well-received at this new school, and now I knew for sure what they thought of me. Guy had delivered that message loud and clear.
“No broken bones,” the emergency doctor reported. “Two dislocated shoulders and a lot of bruising that will be tender for a while. I think she’d best take it easy for a few a days – I’ll give her a prescription for the pain. Have you called the police?”
“Suppose I should?” My mother seemed uncertain.
“If she was my daughter, I would,” the doctor raised an eyebrow, patted me gently and walked off to the next patient.
“His mother seems to think you provoked it,” the officer read from a small, spiral notepad. “Says you insult her son often. Have been mouthy at school.”
Really, I thought, you’re going to blame this on me?
“Well, she does has a history of fighting,” my mother offered.
Okay, it was true, but not this time. This time, I didn’t ask for it. I walked away!
“I think you two had better shake and make up,” the officer decided and then left to fetch my assailant.
Guy’s mother pushed her son into the apartment, smoke from her lit cigarette trailing up from a bony hand. Guy looked smugly unfazed by the police presence.
“You need to leave my boy alone,” his mother said. She was a small, wiry woman, her face lined with deep wrinkles. Hard, I think the word would be.
He needs to back off me! I wanted to say, except I was hurting too much to speak.
Guy took his hand out and I reluctantly placed mine in it, limply offering a truce.
“Now stay away!” his mother warned.
The policeman closed the door behind them. I stared at the space they once occupied and wondered how it had all gone so wrong – the move to this school, my classmates turning on me, the beating, and now the blame.
Was I really that horrid of a person?
How would I ever return to school again and face the haters?
It was 1969 and I was eleven-years-old. That was the year I learned to hate myself. I made a vow to be tougher, to hold my head high and never falter. I would be strong.
It was also a time when I learned to doubt myself, devaluing the things that had previously defined me – my intellect, my sense of justice, my desire to make a difference in the world. I buried them all beneath a happy-go-lucky exterior. Better to appear dumb and blend in then make a scene.
A bully may have defiled me, but it was I who decided to bury the best parts of me at the bottom of that ravine.